Let’s Become Disappearing Leaders

A couple years ago, I witnessed a well-known, incredible worship leader. His guitar strum stirred my heart, and his baritone voice felt like honey to the soul. I was awed—and a bit envious—as I watched him experience God. I understood his fame.

I praised his skills to my friends. When I wanted to write about leadership, that time of worship came to mind. I wanted to write about that. But then I remembered my first wonderment of a worship leader, someone you’ve never heard of.

When I was about twelve, I noticed that my church was singing louder and even 0166-St.-Marks-Episcopal-Cathedral-Organ-Minneapolis-MN-r1tapping their feet (okay, we were Presbyterians, so we just wiggled our toes). We sang with an unfamiliar, inner-confidence. We began new verses in unison instead of a raggedy, smattering of voices slowly joined by others. I asked my parents what was happening.

They said we had just hired a new organist, Donna Picken. While “only” an organist (this was before pyrotechnical guitars and lighting were allowed in churches), she helped us worship with a gusto few Presbyterians allow in themselves.

The thing was, we never noticed Donna. We just sang better. We didn’t hear fancy organ bass runs (they were probably there); we simply felt freer to sing.

Donna was a great leader because we didn’t see her; we just sensed her effect. Donna was a great worship leader because we didn’t see her, we saw through her … to God.

The problem with leaders

Every soul in the universe desperately claws for attention. (Except me.) It’s obvious in kids. Little boys climbing trees shout, “Mom, look at me,” and little girls dancing in their Easter dresses call out, “Dad, look at me.”

Adults are more subtle. But not much. People-pleasers grab for notice by their niceness; great administrators humbly point out their great dedication; and Wall Street financiers arrogantly proclaim their brilliance.

The best way to be noticed is to become a leader. Better yet, a spiritual leader. People beg for your time, they adore your advice, and they praise you to their friends. Many leaders with the largest followings are the men and women most desperate for attention. They work harder than you because they need more notice than you.

The problem with these leaders is that their lives primarily evoke their own praise.

Telltale signs

We are surrounded by a sea of humanity, and we leave footprints in the sands of the lives we touch. The impression of our lives is felt by the people we engage. Each engagement with us leaves others encouraged, loved, more confident, willing to take risks, and inspired to love God.

Or inspired to praise our brilliance, exalt our humility, or take notice of our niceness.

So each one of us leads, we all leave footprints. But what kind of leader are we? There are only two kinds of leaders: leaders who pour out others to build monuments to themselves, and leaders who pour out themselves and disappear. The only monuments that last are built by leaders who aren’t building their own lasting monuments.

How do we know if our own leadership is mostly about us?

  • We talk far more than we ask (like it’s better to give than receive … advice).
  • Our emotional life is determined by recognition (or its absence) from others.
  • We lack curiosity—genuine, heart-gripping intrigue—about the lives of others.

Sarah Smith

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes a young man on a bus trip to heaven. While walking with a guide, he sees a great woman of beauty beyond description. He asks,

“Is it?…is it?” I whispered to my guide.

“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.”

“She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?”

“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Sarah Smith simply loved every man, woman, and child she met, “Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves.”

How do we do it?

It’s tempting to end with, “Let’s become disappearing leaders.” But it won’t work. Go ahead and try it. (I dare you.) We can’t do it. I can’t pull myself up by my bootstraps.

We all want recognition—somehow to be noticed—and we use our energy to get it. (Come on, let’s admit we do it, either in our brilliant leadership or in our forced humility, we’re looking for a bit of recognition.)

We need to be seen before we can disappear

The gospel lesson, over and over again, is we need to be given before we can give. We love because he first loved us; we comfort others with the comfort we’ve been given; Jesus washed the disciples’ feet so they can wash others.

We need to be seen by God and we’ll no longer care if we’re seen by others. I’m serious. What we need most right now isn’t stronger finances, a better marriage, more people in our pews (or more readers of our blogs). We simply need to see and be seen by God.

Leaders won’t mind going invisible and the humble won’t mind being exalted. When we are seen, we’ll finally look into the lives of others, and through us, others will see God.

Who knows, maybe a few Presbyterians will even wiggle their toes.


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What do YOU think?

17 thoughts on “Let’s Become Disappearing Leaders

  1. Good post Sam,

    Funny was reading Luthor’s Treatise on Good Works this past Sunday. I believe he referred to this subject as the second commandment.

    To which he said:

    “Everyone wants to be of importance and not to be the least, however small he may be; so deeply is nature sunk in the evil of its own conceit and in its self-confidence contrary to these two first Commandments. …… Therefore if a man had nothing else to do except this second work of this Commandment, he would yet have to work all his life-time in order to fight this vice and drive it out, so common, so subtile, so quick and insidious is it.”

    To which I would say “Thank you God that it is not I who lives your law but Christ threw me for this is indeed a battle I must bear moment by moment and it is nice to know “It Is Finished””

  2. Such a good topic. I challenge my friends sometime to do something nice and never tell anyone about it. Sure, they’re good for a while. But sooner or later, it will get mentioned to someone. Always happens. In fact, I think it might be happening to me right now as I type this and brag about how clever I am!

  3. A need for admiration or recognition is, I think, my great besetting weakness. The Lord has been dealing with it in me a lot lately.

    I could add another test to your list: Imagine doing anonymously the thing God has put on your heart to do for his Kingdom (or the thing you are doing), and see how you feel.

    For me, that test has revealed a fair amount of dross.

    Did you know that the name of the medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing appears not to have been lost or forgotten but carefully hidden by him? I find that amazing.

    And I love that C.S. Lewis quote you chose, especially the last sentence: “In her they become themselves.” What quality in her attentions inspired that in them?

    In contrast, you recall envying that worship leader– a temptation to become him, perhaps, instead of yourself in God’s image. Worship leadership is a service particularly fraught with perils of this kind, being so near in appearance to performance.

    • Martha,

      You outdid yourself this time. I love your two closing thoughts, “In her they became themselves,” and the temptation to become “him.”

      Those are worth ten blogs or a book. I wish I had taken this blog in that direction.

      I completely agree with where you are going. The best, true leaders want to help their “followers” (I hate that term); but they want to help their followers become themselves, or become who God designed them to be.

      Too often leaders are using “them” to help the leader fulfill something; it’s supposed to be the other way around. Or these leaders work in such a way we envy them instead of working in a way that helps us want to be ourselves.

      Really great thoughts.


      • I’m not surprised that that idea resonates with you so deeply. You’re all about seeing people become who they are.

  4. Thank-you so much for saying, “We simply need to see and be seen by God.” I really needed to hear that right now. Working in ministry means that so much of what you do will bear fruit that you will never see. I think that this is good thing – if you see “results” (More people on a Sunday morning, more readers of your blog) praise God, but the real “results” of serving God are not so easily proven by numbers and worksheets. Real results are hearts that are transformed, souls that are freed, lives that are fruitful with eternal fruit, and this can’t be done through the work of one “leader.” At a camp I led a girl to Christ, but all I did was pray with her. Before she met me there were Christian leaders who were teaching her about Jesus, leading her to that point, and afterwards I pray that other Christian leaders will guide her into a life fully reliant on God. As Hagar called Him, we have a God who sees and it is from Him that we have our rewards. He is the great author, weaving us into a greater story, making us become less so He can be more and yet always eager to involve us in His wonderful work.

    • Hi Havs,

      Your experience of helping someone give their life to God reminds me of Paul describing leadership in 1 Corinthians. Some of them were saying “I’m for Paul (or Peter or Apollos).” Paul doesn’t want any of that.

      And he (like you) doesn’t want to take false credit. He says that some plant, some water and some harvest. We need all parts, and he admitted he was just a tiny part.

      False leaders want it to be all about them. (Unfortunately, that is a temptation for all of us). The only way out of this dilemma is to see God, and be seen by him.

      Everything else will work out just fine.

      Thanks for sharing your story.


  5. Another great post, Sam! I like to say, “The essence of leading worship (rather than performing) is to lead people to the Throne and leave them there, unaware of your being there or leaving.”

    • Hi Ken,

      Great comment. The difficulty we all have is our inner-desire for some praise or glory, so we grasp for it in our leadership.

      If we can simply get what we need from God–if we can scratch that itch with God’s love–then I think we can safely lead others; not lead them to ourselves, but lead them to the only true satisfaction for our souls.


  6. I so agree. Once we feel known by God and walk in that, who knows us becomes so much less important. Our insatiable drive for fame is only a symptom of our deep disconnect from the living God who sees us all.